“1933,” or What Hitler’s Ascendency Teaches Us About Authoritarianism
10 Historic Lessons for the Age of Trump
2018 marks the 85th anniversary of the birth of the perhaps the most strident authoritarian regime in Western history: Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power makes this year a good occasion to reflect on the lessons that can be learned from the fateful series of events that unfolded in Germany in 1933. Even more, it is a good occasion to ask what those lessons have to teach us about Donald Trump’s rise to power in 2016 and his first two years in office and to ponder a more fundamental question: Are we, in contemporary America, running the risk of becoming an authoritarian, perhaps even totalitarian, society?
Let me be clear: the aim of such an exercise is not to equate Trump with Hitler, Trump supporters with fascists, or the Republicans with the German Nazi party. To do so would be too simplistic, too disrespectful, and too sweeping (not to mention the substantial political, systemic, historic, cultural, and social differences between the two countries). Still, if we wish to avoid Santanyana’s dictum that “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” we have to take time to note the fundamental similarities between these two situations. These are similarities that should give us pause and, if anything, strengthen our resolve to resist Trump, his policies, and his political allies.
I think there are 10 such historic lessons that we ought to learn if we want to avoid repeating the terrible history of the middle of the 20th century.
1. Exploiting Systemic Weaknesses: The ascendency of both Hitler and Trump was in large part facilitated by the systemic weaknesses of the German and American political systems, particularly by rising popular disenchantment with the political status quo. In Hitler’s case, it was the fractured and ineffective system of governance of the Weimar republic which, with its many small parties, allowed Hitler to form a coalition government with only 43.91% of the vote. He was further assisted by one major constitutional flaw (Article 48, the infamous enabling law) which granted him near-dictatorial powers upon fabricating a crisis (Reichstag’s fire). In Trump’s case it was the archaic institution of the Electoral College which allowed him to become president despite losing the popular vote by over 2.3 million votes (not to mention potential meddling by Russia in the election). Neither candidate had a firm majority of the vote and thus a clear mandate when starting their respective presidencies. Rather, both were able to capitalize on the political polarization that was evident long before either man rose to power.
2. Political Polarization and Communication Breakdown: Prior to the 1932 and 1933 elections in Germany, and prior to 2016’s contentious presidential election in the U.S., similar political polarizations had been building. In both countries dissatisfaction with the political mainstream continued to drive voters to the political fringes. While the U.S. may have lacked a true political left, it is telling that ideological splits began to emerge in both the Democratic and the Republican parties. While the ascendency of social conservatives and the Christian Right has existed for some time in the Republican party, within the Democratic party new splits began to emerge from the left, exemplified by Bernie Sander’s unexpected success in the Democratic primaries. This split is not dissimilar to the fractioning that the right-of-center German People’s Party (DVP) and the left-of-center Social Democratic party (SPD) experienced in Germany starting in the late 1920s. And while we have not been witnessing the literal street fighting that ensued on the streets of German cities here in the U.S., similar breakdowns in the culture of democratic civility can be seen. In both cases this was accompanied by profound economic crisis and by legitimate existential fears, especially among blue-collar workers who understandably felt that none of the mainstream parties truly represented their interests.
3. Populism and Economic Nationalism: Exploiting the fears and discontent within the political mainstream, then, was a convenient political tool used by both Hitler and Trump to shore up their ascendency to power and their justification for authoritarian policies. While few political experts would have predicted the unlikely rise of such political novices just a few years prior to their election victories, in both of these contexts authoritarianism was bred through economic nationalism. In our times as in the Germany of the 1930s economic nationalism was used to evoke hope in a quick return to former glory. In both contexts leaders attempted to gain domestic support by rescinding international treaties and trade agreements and pursuing a more isolationist economic policy. In Germany, given its lack of resources, it became necessary to eventually advocate for and pursue expansionist policies in order to acquire “Lebensraum” (living space) — a strategy that became a logic for territorial expansion through warfare. The United States, on the other hand, may be blessed with territory and resources, but its rampant consumerism simply cannot be sustained by domestic economic growth and thus necessitates global cooperation. Trump’s supporters tend to ignore the fact that Trump and his family’s business endeavors, and the business interests of many Republican politicians with ties to the private sector, are globally oriented in blatant contradiction of their “America First” rhetoric.
4. Foreign Policy Distractions and Imperialism: As Max Weber explained long ago, the tactic of forging internal legitimacy by deliberately constructing foreign threats is one of the oldest tricks in the political playbook. Hitler and the fascist movement he headed surely had a relatively easy time using the notion of an “external enemy” to galvanize his base given Europe’s long history of aggression, the recent memory of World War I, and the bad deal that the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles. Such memory served the purpose of rearmament and lent support to a hostile, aggressive foreign policy. It is thus perhaps not surprising that Trump and his Republican allies have been conjuring up fears of terrorism, of foreign powers wishing to harm America, and fostering the notion that Americans are getting a bad deal in the various trade deals into which we have entered over the past few decades (this despite the fact that it is actually the opposite). As a result, Trump too has been proposing sharp and unprecedented increases in military spending, something virtually every previous authoritarian regime has done. And while some of these threats are current and real (i.e., ISIS, North Korea, etc.), it is interesting to note that American military aggression seems to coincide with the need to distract the American public from internal woes. As such, it comes as no surprise that such distractions also incite in Americans a tendency to see immigrants as potential terrorists, encourage xenophobia, and consequently support another dangerous political tool of authoritarian regimes: Race baiting.
5. Race Baiting: Playing along with the theme of populism, both countries have long histories of racial discrimination and exploitation of ethnic, racial, or religious minorities. Race baiting has always been a convenient political tool used to galvanize and manipulate ethnic or religious majorities, be it through anti-Semitism in 1930’s Germany or racism, nativism, and anti-Islamism in the United States. Recent reports of the mistreatment of undocumented immigrants in American detention centers, and the utter disregard for due process are highly troubling to say the least. Granted, Trump and most Republicans’ anti-Islamist and anti-immigration stance may not be intentionally genocidal, but they do serve a similar purpose of luring frightened, disenfranchised, and dissatisfied white voters to buy into reactionary policies. Trump supporters have become blind to the irreversible fact that Trump’s policies undermine public welfare and social wellbeing for all citizens regardless of race or ethnicity and undercut their own best interests by serving the already rich and powerful.
6. Elite Complicity: Funding, establishing, and maintaining an authoritarian regime within a previously democratic society costs money and requires the collaboration of economic elites. Neither Hitler or Trump’s successful ascendency to power and embrace of authoritarian aspirations would have been possible without the backing of the nation’s respective economic elites — elites who, at the beginning at least, viewed these candidates as tools through which they could further their own economic ambitions. Since in Trumps case he is himself (courtesy of his father’s credit) a “self-made” member of the economic elite, it has been rather easy to shore up such support and to persuade the economic elite to espouse his laissez-faire policies of lesser regulation and decreasing taxation. Hitler, on the other hand, came from marginal circumstances but achieved buy-in by deliberately courting the elite with economic promises and by appointing, as Trump has, industrialists and ambitious nouveau-riche to his cabinet. It must be admitted that the political gamble of these economic elites, when measured in economic performance of big industry and soaring stock markets, at least initially paid off. In our day and age, it is telling that the Dow Jones continues to rise even though there has been almost no mention that Trump has capitalized on the policies of his predecessor.
7. Dismantling the System: For any authoritarian regime to take hold once in power, it is necessary to dismantle the existing political and judicial systems. And while the aforementioned “enabling law” made it rather easy to swiftly dismantle the political system of the Weimar Republic and establish a totalitarian regime in Germany, the U.S. system of checks and balances is more difficult to change quickly. Still, the ability to fire and appoint key government officials and judges exemplifies the tremendous power administrations possess and the extent to which a move toward a more totalitarian system has already begun in the United States. Trump and his administration’s ongoing interference into legal proceedings about Russian meddling in the 2016 election and investigations about his own, his family’s, and his associates’ legal troubles are all signs of attempts to manipulate and undermine the political and judicial system. Of particular concern is the ability of the President and Congress to appoint life-long Supreme Court judges with long-lasting consequences on constitutional decisions and thus the ability to advance a reactionary agenda. It is telling that Trump has nominated an ultra-conservative judge with deep ties to the Republican party — Brett Kavanaugh — to fill the latest vacancy. Still, given that the dismantling of the system is a time-consuming process, it is necessary to use additional economic and socio-cultural levers to advance a reactionary agenda and establish authoritarian rule in the U.S. Still, here too some alarming similarities can be seen — as the next few lessons exemplify.
8. Controlling Information and Disdain for the Free Press: Ultimately, the most important political tool of any authoritarian regime is the control of information and public discourse. As such, freedom of speech and a free press are without a doubt the most dangerous foes of any totalitarian aspiration. Hitler, courtesy of the enabling act, was able to move swiftly to dispose of the free press by evoking the notion of a “Luegenpresse” or lying press. He accused the press of falsifying facts, distorting political realities and, once more, used the race baiting tactic by asserting that the free press had been undermined by Jews. In its place, he established the Ministry of Propaganda headed by the charismatic, ambitious, and fiercely loyal Joseph Goebbels. The ministry took control of all media outlets, particularly the new technologies of radio and film. It is surely telling that Trump, too, has had a contentious relationship with the free press and has accused the press of falsely portraying both him and his intentions. Trump is, similarly, a master of using new technologies — social media and Twitter in particular — to broadcast his message directly to the public. In the quest to control information Trump certainly faces greater obstacles both because the American press is firmly engrained in the American tradition and because the Internet is more pluralist and international than radio or film was. Still, it is cause for alarm when Trump openly muses about censorship, strengthening libel laws, or attends raucous rallies at which he is celebrated by his followers rather than facing the press at the White House Correspondent’s dinner the way every president, regardless of rating or popularity, has done in the past.
9. Anti-Intellectualism and Religious Pandering: Another obstacle toward the establishment of authoritarian regimes is intellectual and academic opposition. This is often related to adherence to rational, evidence-based inquiry, and to support for differentiated academic and scientific discourses. Both Trump and Hitler along with their devotees are characterized by a deep-seated disdain for intellectuals who make up the majority of the cultural, academic, and media elite. Rather, both preferred a simplified, grandiose, single-issue discourse that serves their respective purposes and resonates with an intellectually dis-inclined political base. Worse, both leaders distinguished themselves through a blatant disregard for facts, inventing “alternative facts” as they saw fit knowing that their fanatic followers would take their word. In both circumstances blind faith has replaced reason. Both leaders and their respective movements reinforced such anti-intellectualism through religious pandering, using organized religion to further their cause and to broaden their political base. The Roman philosopher Seneca once said that “religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Both Hitler and Trump along with their political allies abused or continue to abuse the latter. Trump, who by most Christian standards has acted immorally throughout his life, is conveniently using the evangelical Christian Right as his base and continues to pander to the “God and Nation” credo. Hitler, on the other hand, used the Catholic church and the affiliated Center Party to forge the coalition that facilitated his, constitutionally speaking, completely legitimate rise to power. (It should be noted that Protestants soon followed suit, founding the faction of “German Christians.”) To this day I am still haunted by the pictures of Bishops raising their arms to bless tanks before selling out their more critical brethren and then, after the war, absolving themselves from guilt. Such pandering and fake piety ultimately runs counter to what lies at the heart of every major religion.
10. Personality Cult and Character Traits of a Tyrant: A final, and perhaps most disturbing, similarity pertains to the personality cult surrounding the leaders of authoritarian regimes and the psychological characteristics of such leaders. With perhaps the exception of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, virtually every totalitarian regime in modern history was led by a charismatic, ruthless, and ambitious leader with very specific character traits. It is frightening to think that Donald Trump is strikingly similar to several tyrants of the 20th century in his self-obsession, narcissism, paranoia, and unhealthy need to be admired. All these tyrants compensated by emphasizing over-confidence, self-importance, pompousness, and grandeur. The sense of infallibility, the greed, and the blind ambition of these men rendered them incapable of accepting and trusting people who disagreed with them and led them to surrounded themselves with yes-men.
Agree or disagree, I think it fair to say that this abbreviated historic analysis is frightening. These historic similarities must taken seriously, and the lessons they teach should be used to continue to resist Trump and the turn toward authoritarianism we are experiencing in the United States. History has warned us. It is history that ensures that we cannot claim ignorance the way many Germans did after the war. We know why and how authoritarian systems take hold. We must learn the lessons history teaches.
Still, perhaps there is some silver lining in all this: For one, the system of checks and balances that has long kept America from veering too far off a centrist course — and has allowed incremental changes toward the Constitutional promises of a “more perfect union” — still works, at least for now. The press, the courts, the Democratic opposition, and, most importantly, countless American citizens continue to show resolve and have had at least some success in slowing some of the most insidious policies Trump and many members of the Republican Congress have been pursuing. And a second silver lining is contemporary Germany. Granted, some of the troubling evidence presented above still pertains to Germany today, most notably xenophobia and racism as evidenced in the alarming rise of the Alternative for Germany (a far right populist party), but Germany has come a long way since World War II. Based on a good system of governance and its efficient and productive social market economy, Germany has become a peaceful and exemplary member of the European Union characterized by smart leadership regardless of party affiliation. If anything, American conservatives ought to take a closer look at the German Christian Democrats who are demonstrating that it is possible to marry economic efficiency and fiscal discipline with social welfare and justice.
These silver linings notwithstanding, we do run a particularly daunting risk, one that ultimately allowed Hitler to tighten his grip on German society: complacency and resignation. It is with these enemies in our sights that we, the RESISTANCE, must continue to voice our opposition, to demonstrate, and to engage. We must use all the tools in our arsenal to inform, persuade, and slow the rising tide of authoritarianism in these United States. This includes, perhaps most importantly, voting in the 2018 midterm elections. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to resist all efforts to undo whatever little progress we have made toward realizing the American promise of freedom and justice for all.
Jürgen von Mahs is an Associate Professor and chair of the Urban Studies Program at The New School and holds a joint appointment at Eugene Lang College and the Bachelors Program for Adult and Transfer Students at the Schools of Public Engagement.